A Dissident Meditation on Jewish Identity: A Review of Gilad Atzmon’s “The Wandering Who?”

Gilad Atzmon, The Wandering Who? A Study of Jewish Identity Politics (Winchester, UK and Washington, DC: Zer0 Books, 2011, 202 pp.)

Gilad Atzmon is one of those rarest of all birds—the sort of person who would be called a “self-hating Jew” by Jewish activists. Except that he doesn’t really hate himself and really doesn’t have much of a Jewish identity at all. He is an honest leftist who happens to be of Jewish origin; or perhaps one should label him a liberal devoted to the values of the Enlightenment,  without the typical Jewish blinders. Although he has a few blinders of his own, he sees quite clearly the incompatibility of Zionism with post-Enlightenment Western civilization.

For Atzmon, Zionism is all about Judaism as racial identity politics, ethnic cleansing, and manipulating Western governments via the Israel Lobby. As a child growing up in Israel, “supremacy was brewed into our souls, we gazed at the world through racist, chauvinistic binoculars. And we felt no shame about it either” (p. 2). He began his journey of embracing the West as a result of immersion in jazz. Eventually, “I somehow already yearned to become a Goy or at least to be surrounded by Goyim” (p. 7).

For Atzmon, the racialism so fundamental to Zionism is an aberration from Judaism the religion. He has no problem with people who “regard themselves as human beings that happen to be of Jewish origin.” The problem arises with “those who put their Jewish-ness over and above all other traits” (p. 16). This sort of Jewish essentialism was central to Zionism from the beginning, often with strong racialist overtones. Quoting Vladimir Jabotinsky, the father of the Israeli right:

A Jew brought up among Germans may assume German customs, German words. He may be wholly imbued with that German fluid but the nucleus of his spiritual structure will always remain Jewish because his blood, his body, his physical racial type are Jewish.

Atzmon reviews the data showing that Zionism began out of a concern that Jews would lose their racial distinctiveness by assimilation (see also here, p. 152ff)—a “tribal preservation project” p. 70). “Separation is a strategy of ghetto-building, and Zionists have followed this strategy since the late nineteenth century” (p. 41). This is certainly true, but Atzmon seems unaware that in this regard, Zionism was simply building on traditional Jewish separatism. Indeed, early Zionists were well aware of this. As the early Zionist Elias Auerbach phrased it, “Zionism would return Jews ‘back into the position they enjoyed before the nineteenth century—politically autonomous, culturally whole, and racially pure’” (Ibid, p. 158). The original enemy of the Zionists was the Enlightenment and the assimilationist tendencies of Western civilization.

True Zionists are therefore Jews first and foremost—to the point that they put the interests of Israel ahead of the interests of the countries they live in. Atzmon thus cites the work of Victor Ostrovsky, the former Mossad agent who described the huge network of Sayanim ready to help the cause of Israel by aiding the Mossad. This of course is exactly the type of behavior that has led to the loyalty issue of anti-Jewish attitudes throughout history. Atzmon is quite clear that the loyalty issue applies in spades to the neoconservatives and the rest of the Jewish establishment with their constant drumbeat of wars for Israel—“the neocons transform the American army into an Israeli mission force” (p. 70). Paul Wolfowitz (a central focus of Atzmon’s ire) as a Sayan.

Atzmon is quite aware that if anti-Semitism didn’t exist, strongly identified Jews would have to create it: “Zionism is maintained by anti-Semitism” (p. 33). The perception of anti-Semitism creates a bunker mentality that justifies everything.

Atzmon has a nice chapter on the deceptive self-images of liberal secular Jews who spout phrases of universalist humanism but in their innermost beings are anything but universalist or humanist. This is indeed the central masquerade of Jews in the post-Enlightenment West, what he calls “the Jewish tribal left” p. 72). He traces this stance to the very origins of the European Enlightenment when Moses Mendelssohn advised Jews to “live in a dual, deceptive mode, if not practically in a state of schizophrenia. … He must have realised that universalism and tribalism are opposing categories. … This solution led to false and deceptive behaviour. … This behavioural code, though very pragmatic, happens to be non-ethical by definition. It is based on deception—both self-deception and deceiving the other” (pp. 55, 57).

The result is that Jewish identity in the Diaspora is what Atzmon terms a “negative identity”:

Rather than understanding who you are, one invests some effort in differentiating oneself from the other and from the universal. Rather than listening to one’s conscience and engage in an authentic ethical judgment, the negating subject sets his or her relationships with his or her surrounding environment, based on pragmatic and practical decision-making and exchange. At most one may present a pretence of ethical thinking, but no more than that. (p. 63).

Prime examples of this pragmatic veneer of ethics are neocon ideologues who “always present a seemingly ‘ethical’ argument. They employ what looks like a moral excuse in order to introduce a pretext for a war. … Clearly the Palestinians and the Iraqis are paying a heavy price as victims of the politics of negation, politics that convey a deceitful image of righteousness” (p. 64).

Although Atzmon is quite aware of the deceptiveness of the secular Jewish left, noting that the Israeli left, like its Diaspora counterparts, has eagerly endorsed all of Israel’s wars (p. 79). Unfortunately, he thinks of Jewish socialism and Jewish progressive activism” only as “integral parts of the Zionist network[;] they are concerned with the future of the Jewish secular tribe — they are there to collect the lost souls amongst the humanist Jewish, to bring them home for Hanukkah” p. 76).

Would that that was the whole story. Atzmon fails to go beyond Zionism in his analysis of the Jewish left in the Diaspora in the West. The reality is that the Jewish left has been the most important force in the dissolution of the West as an ethno-cultural entity while tenaciously holding onto its own ethno-culture. The Jewish left has been the backbone of the left throughout the West since early in the 20th century, and it has been by far the most important component of the Jewish Diaspora community in Western nations throughout the 20th century into the 21st century. Prior to WWII, the Jewish left used its influence to support international socialism and the USSR where Jews had become a dominant elite, and since WWII it has had a critical influence promoting massive non-White immigration, multiculturalism, and the displacement of the traditional people and culture of the West.

It is this assault by the Jewish tribalist left masquerading as enlightened universalists that was a major source of anti-Semitism during and preceding the National Socialist era in Germany. For example, in Mein Kampf Hitler wrote of the liberal Jew “while he seems to overflow with ‘enlightenment,’ ‘progress,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘humanity,’ etc., he himself practices the severest segregation of his race ” (see here, p. 150). Similarly, Atzmon notes “emancipated Jews insist on celebrating the fruits of enlightenment; they celebrate their right to determine who they are. On the other hand, Jewish politics is tribal, it is intolerant of Jewish dissidence or any form of self-determination that may oppose what it regards as Jewish political or tribal interests” (p. 105).

The only “ethical” principle is what’s good for the Jews: “both Judaism and ‘Jewish ideology’ are devoid of universal ethics” (p. 113). Both the Israeli left (Matzpen) and the neocons (Wolfowitz) use Western rhetoric “to justify the Jewish right to self-determination and the destruction of Arab regional power and Islam. For the Matzpenist, to liberate Arabs is to turn them into Bolsheviks; the neocon is actually slightly more modest — all he wants is for Arabs to drink their Coca-Cola in a Westernised democratic society. Both Judeocentric philosophies were doomed to failure, because the notion of self-determination is overwhelmingly Eurocentric” (p. 109.; italics in text).

In the long run, I predict that the Diaspora strategy of the Jewish mainstream will lead to a resurgence of racial identity in the West as Whites realize that they and their culture are under assault by massive non-White immigration and multiculturalism. Judaism is indeed incompatible with Western culture, and as its influence grows, the West will inevitably be Balkanized into competing ethnic/racial groups—precisely the population structure that inevitably results from a powerful strategizing group in a Diaspora context, exacerbated now by the massive immigration and multiculturalism unleashed by Jewish intellectual and political movements.

Throughout history, Jews have always been an elite, typically making alliances with non-Jewish elites and often collaborating in oppression of the peoples dominated by the elites. Here Atzmon traces the Jewish preoccupation with making alliances with the powerful to the Book of Esther, where Mordecai schemes to influence the king on behalf of the Jews. Atzmon describes several modern examples, most interestingly Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s 1934 letter to the NSDAP where he affirms the idea that Jews are a race committed to maintaining racial purity, while seeking common ground with the dominant power, the German government.

But it was an alliance based on interests, not principle. Later, after emigrating to America, Prinz as head of the American Jewish Congress, became the quintessential liberal. According to Atzmon, the only consistency was his realization that “whatever is good for Jews is simply good” (p. 164). Similarly, Jewish organizations have treated the Armenian genocide not as a historical narrative, but have solely been concerned about how it affects the interests of Israel. For Jews, there are no principles, only interests.

In the  contemporary West, Jews have expanded on the historical Diaspora strategy of making alliances with elites to focus on three ways of obtaining influence, citing a comment of über-Zionist Haim Saban: Donations to political parties, establishing think tanks, and controlling media outlets. Right. This is not the place to recount Jewish media domination and political influence, but it is worth noting that Saban has practiced what he preaches: Saban controls Univision, the Spanish language network and led a group that bought Kirsch Media Group, a German media conglomerate; he has contributed millions of dollars to Democratic political causes and lesser amounts to Republicans; and he funded the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution to the tune of $13 million. This strategy, which ultimately stems from Jewish wealth and active engagement in the political process, has given Jews influence far beyond their numbers.

Atzmon at times gets a bit off the rails. For example, he proposes that Alan Greenspan engineered the housing bubble in order to distract people from the war in Iraq. A definitive account of the Jewish role in the greatest elite fraud in history remains to be written. And it is certainly true that Greenspan, along with Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, bears responsibility for de-regulating the financial markets and enabling the housing bubble. However, Atzmon doesn’t provide any evidence for his view, and it would seem that simple greed seems at least as likely an explanation.

Atzmon creates a narrative in which traditional Jews living in European societies “saw themselves as American, British or French people who happened to be Jewish,” but then Zionists came along and eventually convinced most Jews that they were Jews first and foremost — “the birth of Zionist separatism” (p. 39). In general, Atzmon is far too eager to paint Zionism as the original sin of Judaism. While it’s true that this is a good description of what one might call the official public ideology of Judaism in post-Enlightenment European societies, it is not at all an accurate description of Jewish behavior. In fact the loyalty issue long pre-dates Zionism. Jews have always had strong international connections and interests that transcended where they happened to live. Perhaps the most historically important example of this was the worldwide campaign of the organized Jewish community against the Russian government from the late 19th century up to the Bolshevik Revolution—a campaign that at times opposed the national interests of the countries where they lived (see here, p. 67ff).

Another one of Atzmon’s blinders relates to the racial/ethnic component of Judaism. He notes some of the passages in the Old Testament where God commands slaughter and genocide, but fails to note in the same passages that the whole point of this violence is to prevent intermarriage with the victims. Dead people can’t be marriage partners; they can’t pollute the gene pool. Thus he quotes Deuteronomy 7: 1–2: “When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations … you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy.” But he leaves out the next line: “You shall not make marriages with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons” (Deut. 7:3). For the Jews, the God of the Old Testament is nothing more or less than the racially pure Jewish gene pool.

Indeed, Atzmon completely avoids any mention of modern population genetic studies that show conclusively that Jews are indeed an ethnic entity and that widely dispersed Jewish groups are more similar to each other than to the peoples they have lived among for hundreds or thousands of years. Instead he relies on Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People to argue that Jewish peoplehood is an invention of the 19th century resulting from the influence of German nationalism.

Part of Sand’s argument is that the events described in the Bible are imaginary. This may or may not be true, but the point is that the events illustrate the mindset of the authors, and that mindset is decidedly on the racialist/ethnocentric side. There is a deep concern with intermarriage in multiple passages in many books of the Old Testament, all with the drumbeat that intermarriage is the ultimate form of Jewish apostasy. Moreover, this concern with intermarriage was characteristic of historical Jewish Diaspora communities. Intermarriage not only removed one from the Jewish community but was a stain on the entire family, thus damaging the marriage prospects of relatives into future generations (A People That Shall Dwell Alone: Judaism as a Group Evolutionary Strategy, Ch. 3 & Ch. 4). The historical data are quite clear that the Jewish people are an ethnic entity, and these results are highly compatible with contemporary genetic evidence.

Moreover, there is no evidence to support the Khazar hypothesis—also adopted by Sand and Atzmon — that Ashkenazi Jews have no genetic connection to the Middle East or to other Jewish groups but rather stem from a conversion event of a Turkic people in the Middle Ages. There is no evidence to indicate that is where the Ashkenazi population came from–linguistically (Yiddish is a German dialect), contemporary population genetic evidence, or their own historical memory. There is in fact evidence that the Khazars converted to Judaism, but it’s long way from that to supposing that the Khazars are the ancestors of the Ashkenazim. The reason people like Atzmon buy the Khazar hypothesis is that they think it de-legitimizes Israel–a political motive. But one need not support Israel even if one acknowledges the ethnic coherence of Judaism, and certainly there is no need to think the US should support Israel unconditionally just because Jews are an ethnic entity.

Atzmon comments: “Many Jews, even secular ones, continue to regard mixed marriage as the ultimate threat.” Right. And the fact that these concerns go back to the origins of Diaspora Judaism is exactly why Judaism remains an ethnic entity.

Atzmon is at his best in dealing with the culture of the Holocaust. In Chapter 16 (“Trauma queen”) he dismisses the reality of Jewish Holocaust trauma among Jews who never actually went through the experience, noting that whatever feelings they have are manufactured by what he calls the “Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome” — where Jews are manipulated into feeling trauma by media images of imminent destruction and by being transported to Auschwitz for the purpose of “maturing into traumatised Jewish adults” (p. 131), thereby suppressing any possible empathy for the Palestinians. “The well-established Judeo-centric tendency to interpret almost any political and ideological criticism as a declaration of impending Judeocide is a severe form of collective Pre-TSS” (p. 131). There is always a “Shoah to come” (p. 132) lurking around the corner, likely to be set off by any criticism of Jews, no matter how rationally based (see also here, pp. 11–12).

Atzmon notes that the Holocaust cult has all the features of a religion and none of the features of a historical narrative:

It has priests (e.g., Simon Wiesenthal, Elie Wiesel, Deborah Lipstadt) and prophets (… those who warn of the Iranian Judeocide to come). It has commandments and dogmas (‘Never Again’) and rituals (memorial days, pilgrimage to Auschwitz, etc). It has an established, esoteric symbolic order (kapos, gas chambers, chimneys…). It also has a temple, Yad Vashem, and shrines — Holocaust museums in capital cities worldwide. The Holocaust religion is also financed by a massive global financial network …. This new religion is coherent enough to define its ‘antichrists’ (Holocaust deniers) and powerful enough to persecute them (through Holocaust-denial and hate-speech laws). (pp. 148–149)

The Holocaust has therefore achieved “meta-historical status” — beyond factual inquiry, its “’factuality’ sealed by draconian laws, and its reasoning secured by social and political institutions” (p. 149). It is a powerful political force on behalf of Jewish interests—e.g., it “is touted as a pretext for nuking Iran” (p. 152).

Many of these points have also been made by Peter Novick his The Holocaust in American Life. Novick adds that the culture of the Holocaust was promoted as the main source of Jewish identity and in the effort to combat assimilation and intermarriage among Jews. An important lesson is that “tolerance and diversity [are] good; hate [is] bad, the overall rubric [being] ‘man’s inhumanity to man'” (pp. 258-259). The Holocaust has thus become an instrument of Jewish ethnic interests as an instrument to silence opponents of high levels of multi-ethnic immigration into Western societies. And, regarding the metaphysical uniqueness of the Holocaust, it would be hard to improve on Abe Foxman’s comment, cited by Novick (p. 199) that the Holocaust is “not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God’s chosen children and, thus, on God himself.”

Atzmon makes the interesting point that the Holocaust religion is simply another version of age-old Jewish fear — the pre-traumatic stress syndrome discussed above. It is a bunker mentality of impending doom that rationalizes even the most extreme actions to prevent  it. One might also note that it functions as a modern version of Jewish chosenness — that Jews are a special people whose sufferings are unique.

Atzmon is not so much a Holocaust denier as someone who denies the metaphysical status that the Holocaust has achieved—its uniqueness, its being beyond questioning, and its historical transcendence—all of which have made it into an enormously powerful weapon for achieving Jewish interests and in particular for making Israel’s behavior beyond reproach. Thus, he does not deny that his great-grandmother died in WWII, but he refuses to give her death any special status: Her death “was indeed bad and tragic, but not that different from the fate of millions of Ukrainians, on learning the real meaning of communism. … [Her fate] was not so different from hundreds of thousands of German civilians who died in deliberate, indiscriminate bombing, just because they were Germans” (p. 175).

Famously (due to its being quoted in a hit piece by former IDF prison guard now Zionist media hack Jeffrey Goldberg), Atzmon writes the following, with differences in Goldberg’s version in red:

I think that 65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we must be entitled to start asking questions [to ask the necessary questions]. We should ask for [some conclusive] historical evidence and arguments rather than follow a religious narrative that is sustained by political pressure and laws. We should strip the Holocaust [holocaust] of its Judeo-centric exceptional status and treat it as an historical chapter that belongs to a certain time and place.

Adding the word ‘conclusive’ seems particularly malicious. Goldberg’s real aim in quoting this passage and several others is to tarnish John Mearsheimer who endorsed Atzmon’s book. Atzmon therefore becomes a pawn in the larger game of de-legitimizing the most effective critique thus far of the Israel Lobby—effective because Mearsheimer and his co-author Stephen Walt are elite academics in the area of foreign policy. If Mearsheimer had not provided this opening, Atzmon’s book would doubtless have gotten the silent treatment—a very common and effective Jewish strategy in dealing with uncomfortable realities.

Immediately after the above passage, Atzmon truly crosses the line—to go where few, if any, Jews dare to go:

65 years after the liberation of Auschwitz we should be able to ask — why? Why were the Jews hated? Why did European people stand up against their neighbors? Why are the Jews hated in the Middle East, surely they had a chance to open a new page in their troubled history. … Why did America tighten its immigration laws amid the growing danger to European Jews? We should also ask what purpose Holocaust denial laws serve? What is the Holocaust religion there to conceal? As long as we fail to ask questions, we will be subjected to Zionist lobbies and their plots. We will continue killing in the name of Jewish suffering. (pp. 175–176)

The question why Jews have been hated in so many times and places is indeed the fundamental question one has to ask. Atzmon merely poses the question without any attempting to provide a theory for understanding historical anti-Semitism. (My version is that all the important historical outbreaks of anti-Semitism are due ultimately to real conflicts of interest.) But he is quite clear that the ideology that anti-Semitism is an “’irrational’ social phenomenon that erupts ‘out of nowhere’” is a non-starter, since it implies that a very large percentage of the human population is “potentially mad” (p. 182).

The closest Atzmon comes to answering the question is to ask another one: “Can Israeli behavior throw light on the events that led to the Holocaust, or other instances of persecution of Jews?” (p. 182). Again, he doesn’t really try to answer this question, but I will give it a shot. Historical anti-Semitism involves a variety of conflicts of interest (e.g., loyalty issues, economic domination, and, since the Enlightenment, the construction of culture), and here there is the obvious conflict between the legitimate interests of the Palestinians in retaining control over an area they had settled for centuries.

However, another common denominator between important examples of historical anti-Semitism and the behavior of Israel is Jewish aggressiveness. From its beginnings in 1948, Israel has consistently pushed the envelope, beginning with the expulsion of the Palestinians, wars of territorial expansion, with some of the more nationalist elements in Israel openly advocating Jabotinsky’s call for a Jewish state extending from the Nile to the Euphrates, thereby fulfilling God’s promise in Genesis. There is also the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank, the erection of an apartheid state, and the constant beating of the war drums, first against Iraq and now against Iran.

Similarly, beginning with the Enlightenment, Jews have aggressively sought to refashion European societies to suit their interests. Atzmon asks why America closed its doors to further mass Jewish immigration with the Immigration Law of 1924. The reason is simple: Jewish immigrants were prone to leftist political radicalism bent on reshaping the entire society in ways that were foreign to traditional American culture. The organized Jewish community had already launched successful campaigns to get Christianity out of the public square facilitated by Jewish economic success in the big cities. There was also deep concern about the effects on public morals of Jewish control of the movie industry. (These are all themes of Henry Ford’s International Jew which was quite influential during this period.) In later decades Jewish groups would aggressively campaign for massive non-White immigration and they would aggressively establish alliances with non-White ethnic groups, both actions that will ultimately dispossess the traditional people and culture of America and force White Americans to confront a hostile non-White majority, doubtless dominated by the organized Jewish community. Such actions are quite different, for example, from the behavior of Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia: remaining in the background and content to form a business elite with little involvement in politics or the construction of culture.

To conclude, Atzmon has written a daring book and one that is sure to result in his being ostracized by the Jewish community. While he has a few blinders of his own, the book is an invaluable account by someone who clearly understands the main symptoms of Jewish pathology.

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